So, here we are. Three days away – yes, that’s THREE DAYS AWAY – from the release of The Force Awakens, one week away from the culmination of our 30 Days of Star Wars, and what better way to count down until the release of the biggest film of the last several years than with a look back at the movie that started it all?
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew
Run Time: 121 Minutes
Release Date: 25 May 1977
“Luke Skywalker joins forces with a Jedi Knight, a cocky pilot, a wookiee and two droids to save the universe from the Empire’s world-destroying battle-station, while also attempting to rescue Princess Leia from the evil Darth Vader.”
Read that synopsis again. Now take yourself back to May 1977 – or remember to back then if you were around when that synopsis was released – and imagine yourself reading that and thinking about this mystery science-fiction movie and how it would be. Now return to December 2015 and realise that the synopsis you read was for a movie that would shape and define a genre, a generation and, for some, a way of life.
One of cinema’s great opening scenes and the perfect way to immediately stress that this is some serious stuff going on. This one scene set it far and away from anything else previously seen, bringing a new style of photography and special effects filmmaking, and even when watching it some 38 years later, you just get the feeling that you’re watching something special, something that for all the technological advances that would be made over those next 38 years, would never be replicated.
A word of praise, too, for George Lucas. Yes, his decision to continue the franchise all those years later was derided, however we should never forget that it was he that brought what he had spent four years working on to the big screen. Armed with the latest technology, Lucas went back to basics when it came to the story. Looking at it on a basic level, it was a rather simple story of good guys to cheer for, bad guys to boo and a princess that you urged on to be rescued. Sometimes, the basic works best…although it took some time getting there.
A famous story tells how, pre-release, 20th Century Fox set out some focus groups to find out who would be the target audience, who would mostly want to pay their money? The problem came with what the researchers had at their disposal; a short synopsis and a movie called Star Wars led to those researchers realising that under 25 males made up the market that would mainly be taking in this new feature. Anxious not to eliminate the powerful older and/or female markets, significant changes were made – the human element was pushed more, more focus on an epic fairytale as opposed to a testosterone-fuelled space war. And the result? Everyone saw it, and everyone loved it. Containing something for everyone, it didn’t take long to smash records and become the biggest movie of all-time. And why? Because of that rather simple story of good guys to cheer for, bad guys to boo and a princess that you urged on to be rescued. I’ll say it again; Sometimes, the basic works best.
There is no overly-deep story here, it is a rather simple tale. A young Luke Skywalker, with no family and watching a war escalate and not wanting to be an innocent bystander, is presented with an R2-D2-carried message from damsel (or princess) in distress, and sets about joining the fight to locate the princess and take down the dark overlord himself. Unlike Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace, or Hayden Christensen in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Hamill never struggles with character he is tasked with. The film moves at a brisk pace, quickly introducing a superb Alec Guinness as aged Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi, before the true hero of the hour arrives.
The legend of Harrison Ford’s casting is well-known; originally only on set to feed lines to actors auditioning for the part of Han Solo, Ford’s performances, presence and personality impressed George Lucas, and history was written. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine any actor other than Ford as Solo, his charisma dominating the screen at every turn. And for the younger viewers, and merchandising bods, was Han’s pal Chewbacca (and so began decades of impersonations). And of course there is that dark overlord himself, one of the truly iconic villains in movie history, Darth Vader. Lucas does a masterful job of building up this character from the outset, you know from the first moment he appears that this is a man that all fear.
The movie also gets a massive helping hand from John Williams, who surely could not have known that when he was approached by Lucas to score this new space epic, it would lead to what it did. No movie is more known by it’s music than Star Wars, iconic themes that will forever hold their place. Williams’ later work on the prequels would build on the work here, and helped make those films even somewhat one with this. What Lucas presents to us on screen is perfectly accompanied by Williams’ grandiose music.
Lucas has always shown that he can produce great moments, and while he struggles with the journey on occasions, when that journey reaches its conclusion, there are few you would want in charge than George. He is supported by some great individual performances from Ford and Carrie Fisher, and also some sterling vocal work from James Earl Jones’ Vader, with the two main stars in particular displaying a natural chemistry on-screen that makes this movie so enjoyable to watch.
Some films are simply timeless, able to revisit time and time again. And sure, some of the special effects may not look great now – but in the 70s, this was something from another world – but a rich roster of characters, a down-to-earth story of good vs evil, and an iconic bad guy to shake your fist at and root against, make this a must-view for any age. When it comes to true science-fiction, there isn’t much better than this.